When Julie Hermann played volleyball at Nebraska in the ’80s, the program would have brownie sales to raise revenue.
At Notre Dame in the ’70s, Gene Smith recalled that a discussion between a football player and coach might go like this: “You have an issue? Go run the stadium stairs for an hour.”
Simpler times … but not better times.
“This is the greatest time to be a student-athlete. It really is,” said Smith, now the athletic director at Ohio State. “You have nutritionists, sports psychologists, strength coaches, cost-of-attendance (stipends) if you’re on aid. You have coaches getting to know each individual athlete. Back in the day, that was not the case.”
But like everything with big-time athletics, there’s another side.
Back then, student-athletes didn’t have the pressure that comes from having every game televised and every play scrutinized on Twitter, didn’t have to fly from Nebraska to New Jersey for a midweek game and would not have felt exploited economically while playing for an $8 million-a-year coach. (Really, John Calipari?)
So although most of us love college sports, the system remains enough in need of reform that Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said Tuesday during a break in Big Ten athletic director meetings that “this is a time for change, a reset button.”
Speaking of the inherent conflict between education and big business, Iowa AD Gary Barta put it like this: “One of our missions is to graduate young people, and the other is (to operate) a $90 million enterprise, and much of it is based on filling a stadium or selling corporate sponsorships.”
While the public pushes for athletes such as Ohio State quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones to be able to sell autographs or get a piece of jersey sales, Smith is on the other side. He said he only would support athletes getting paid for their likeness “if it’s passed in the courts.”
“We’re not in a pure business,” Smith said. “We’re in an educational environment where we’re helping young people get their degree but also, by participating in a sport, they are learning characteristics that will allow them to be successful in life. Put a value on that.
“This summer our football team, every single player, has to have an internship or shadow someone in business. When you have a Jamie Dimon (CEO of JPMorgan Chase) or a Dan Gilbert (owner of the Cavaliers) there to talk to you, give you their business card and say: ‘Hey, if I can ever help, shoot me an email,’ … that is invaluable.”
But while the athletic directors stress the benefits that come with being a college athlete, they also know the negatives. The biggest, for many, are the time demands.
“If I was setting the agenda, that would be No. 1,” Hermann said. “We can call them student-athletes, but these are students. Are we truly creating opportunities to get their body of academic work done?”
The ADs have spoken of creating a “day off” for student-athletes, but how would you force a swimmer or cross-country runner to skip a day of training?
“We’d have to be very concrete with the rules and prevent wiggle room,” Teague said, clearly wary of one school gaining an advantage by not complying.
Said Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke: “We have four quarterbacks at Purdue who are all dean’s list students. If they want to come in at 10 o’clock to watch film, are you going to tell them no? You don’t tell the chemistry major they can’t go in the lab. The whole question is, are you pressuring the kids to go watch film and video? That seems to be the biggest culprit.”
Burke said the solution might be to get advice for former athletes “who just recently have experienced it” and pair that with advice from coaches and exercise physiologists. Create, for each sport, a preparation cycle, competition cycle and recovery cycle.
Yes, it’s complicated. So are issues such as transfer rules — the graduate transfer rule, for better or worse, has turned college seniors into free agents — and early enrollment policies that encourage high school seniors to forgo what should be one of the best year of their lives.
But can we all at least agree college athletics is worth saving?
Athletic directors like Barta certainly think so.
“The beauty is, we’ve been doing it for 100 years,” he said. “I think it’s still a great model.”